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Pilgrims Death Café is full of life

Posted on 11 August 2017

Pilgrims Hospices first Death Cafe is full of life

Pilgrims hosted one of its first Death Cafés at its education centre in Canterbury earlier this summer. But what exactly is a Death Café, and why would anyone want to go to one?

We spoke to Nicola Le Prevost from Pilgrims Education team about why they hosted the event, and to local playwright Karen Bartholomew about her experience of attending her first Death Café.

The Death Café movement was set up in 2011 by Jon Underwood from his home in East London. Jon believed that a Death Café could be a safe and informal space for people to come together and talk about death over coffee and cake. This idea took off and has since spread around the world; perhaps its popularity is due to how often we avoid talking about death as part of our daily lives.

It was fascinating. I loved the mix of people, all ages and backgrounds and careers.

The first Pilgrims Death Café was part of Dying Matters Awareness Week, a campaign to help enable people to talk openly and honestly about death.

Chance for an ‘open discussion’

Nicola Le Prevost, associate Director of Education and Training at Pilgrims, explained: “We very consciously tried to plan events in Dying Matters Awareness Week to engage with people who wanted to discuss death and dying in a comfortable, informal setting.

“We hoped the people who came would be comfortable discussing any issues that they wished to in relation to death and dying with likeminded people. We wanted to give an opportunity for discussion that often can’t be had openly with family and friends.

“It’s important for Pilgrims to be centred in the local community, not just providing care and support to patients and their families. We want to engage with all local people to openly encourage discussion on topics like death.”

Nicola and the team read a lot about Death Cafés before the event: “In comparison with other events we already run to encourage people to talk about these issues, like our popular film nights and poetry evenings, this seemed like a much simpler event. We were just asking people to turn up and talk together over coffee and cake. The only thing we were unsure of was whether anyone would actually want to come.”

The posters went up and there was a mixed reaction. Some people found the name ‘Death Café’ too morbid or too shocking, others thought that it was a brilliant idea or had heard of it before. Either way, it seemed that this kind of discussion was much needed in our community; all the spaces for the event were quickly booked up.

Conversation, coffee and cake

Karen Bartholomew, a local playwright and writer of the currently touring God’s Waiting Room – a beautiful, moving, and very funny play about death and loss within a family – came along to the Death Café. She shared her expectations before the event: “I suspected strangers, myself included, would talk more freely about death, their thoughts around it, their fears, their experiences, and how it sits culturally with us all now. I felt it would be a very honest environment.”

Death is a part of our lives; I think it’s time we talked about it more.

Pilgrims hosted the Death Café in its Ann Robertson Centre, next-door to Pilgrims Hospice Canterbury. The team served coffee, teas and cake and split into two groups so that everyone could have a chance to speak. After a short introduction from Martyn Yates, Spiritual Care Lead at Pilgrims, people sat down to listen to each other and to talk, with no set agenda or format.

Karen explains: “It was fascinating. I loved the mix of people, all ages and backgrounds and careers. I was most interested in older people talking so frankly about their concerns of dying alone. Death did not worry them but being alone did. As a woman in her forties and with my family still around me at this point in my life, I have not questioned that so closely and it made me realise how some older people might be feeling.”

From doubts about whether or not anyone would turn up to whether they’d be open enough to talk, Nicola’s team found themselves with a room full of people all animatedly chatting, expressing themselves and listening to one another. At the end, people hung on for another cup of tea or coffee and to finish their conversations with those they had met. Nicola said: “For an event that brought people together to talk about death, we were amazed at how full of life it was.”

Karen agreed when we asked her how she felt at the end: “I felt enlivened, actually. The premise of a Death Café is a hard sell; I know this from the title of my play. Yet still, Death Cafés are whatever you want them to be. I found I learnt more about people, respect, humanity and community in one short morning than I have in any other environment, other than perhaps a theatre. It’s as much or as little as you want to share or listen to. In a world of social media the way we communicate is changing, so I found this a healthy return to people just talking. Loved it!

“Death is a part of our lives; I think it’s time we talked about it more.”

After its initial run, God’s Waiting Room was commissioned by the NHS. There are two forthcoming performances of God’s Waiting Room taking place at The Brook Theatre in Medway, both free and open to all:

  • Monday 9 October, 7pm
  • Monday 16 October, 4pm.

Each performance will include an interval and discussion about the issues the play raises. Working alongside the NHS, it aspires to help people engage with end of life care teams and learn more about what support is available.

To find out more and book tickets, click here.

If you or your family are experiencing Pilgrims care, find out about the support we can offer through our Wellbeing and Social Programme.


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